Year L, 2008, Number 2, Page 101
Peace and the New Dimension of the Nuclear Threat
Once again, mankind is in thrall to the nuclear nightmare. The nuclear threat did not vanish with the end of the Cold War; on the contrary, the logic of nuclear deterrence, no longer limited to the confrontation between the USA and Russia, has become one of the factors contributing to the growing uncertainty and instability of today’s regional and global balances. The need to rule out the possibility of nuclear war is actually even more urgent now than it was in the 1980s, the period in which the USA and the USSR embarked on the atomic era’s most concrete attempt at peacemaking and millions of people the world over went out into the streets to demand the dismantling of the nuclear arsenals.
And yet apparently, in recent years, nuclear disarmament has not been a main concern of politics, of governments or even of public opinion. It is certainly true that mankind now faces many other difficult challenges (climate change, the energy crisis, the depletion of the world’s raw materials and the problem of international terrorism), but it is an illusion to think, as many do, that these crises can be tackled effectively in a world that continues to live, as it has for almost seventy years now, under the sword of Damocles of an escalation of the risk of nuclear war — a world in which, because of this risk, resources continue to be channelled away from the necessary promotion of sustainable development in line with our planet’s environmental limits and with the need to improve the living conditions of billions of people. It is equally senseless to think, as some governments appear to do, that the nuclear threat can be confined to the possible and occasional use of atomic weapons by and between warring states, believing that this use can be controlled and at the same time feigning ignorance of the dramatic effect it would have on mankind as a whole. After all, we are living in an international climate in which some states, like Iran, are being opposed in their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, while others, like India, are being encouraged to develop them.
While such attitudes may help to dispel some of the fear surrounding the nuclear threat, for this very reason they prevent people from grasping the real seriousness of the problem and from gaining a proper understanding of its root causes, which are linked to the world’s division into sovereign states. Instead, if we want to shake politics out of its current passive acceptance of the growing nuclear anarchy in the world and put an end to the widespread cultural and psychological apathy towards the nuclear question, we must reformulate and affirm the criteria that must be met in order to tackle the problem of peace effectively, and also seek to analyse carefully how events have evolved. The reflections that follow are intended to do just this.
The first point that must be made is that the threat of nuclear actions cannot be removed without also removing the risk of war. And this is possible, as Kant explained, onlyby replacing the system of sovereign states with a global federal system “in which every state, even the smallest, might expect its security and its rights, not by virtue of its own power or as a consequence of its own legal judgement, but solely by virtue of this great federation of peoples, this united power and the decisions based on laws of the united will.” This is the only way in which the problem of peace and war can be resolved definitively. But to guide our action in the current phase, in which this objective is not yet immediately pursuable and constitutes only a point of reference, we need to identify, as Kant again pointed out in the Preliminary articles for perpetual peace, the minimum conditions that must be met in order to allow the states to renounce their constant pursuit of greater power and start moving towards the promotion of the political unity of the whole of mankind. As Mario Albertini pointed out, the greatest difficulty lies “in the need to use the powers that were born of the need for power — the states — in order to attain security not though power but only through law — the federation”.
In the past few decades, the world, in spite of the growth of interaction and interdependence in the economic, commercial and environmental spheres, has not set out on the road that will lead to its political unification. On the contrary, it has been forced to witness both its own disintegration and also the rather alarming evidence of the frailty of the United Nations and of other global organisations. Even regional integration in its most advanced form, the EU, has proved unable to make a valid and practical contribution to finding a solution to this problem and to that of the definition of an adequate model of supranational government. And yet it has never been as clear as it is today that mankind, to avoid catastrophe, must find a way of uniting.
The efforts of US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet Communist Party secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, during the Geneva and Reykjavik summits of 1985-86, to launch a process of détente reveal both the nature of the difficulty inherent in putting the power of the states at the service of the building of peace, and also the extent to which this difficulty is linked to the evolution of the framework of international power. The memoranda of conversation of these meetings, now freely available on the Internet, were commented on at length by Jonathan Schell in his most recent book The Seventh Decade, and by Richard Rhodes in Arsenals of Folly, and they dramatically explode the idea that international politics is governed purely by the free choices and goodwill of the parties involved; indeed, what they actually bring out is just how little room for manoeuvre the states have when striving to promote peace in a world governed by the rule of force. Thesememoranda provide an illustration of how the nuclear logic induces states first to procure atomic weapons, in order to increase their own security or power, only then to find themselves, fearful of the terrible damage they could incur, doing everything they can to reduce the risk of actually using them. What the memoranda also reveal is the extent to which the global balance of power always conditions the course and outcome of negotiations between states.
As regards the first of these aspects, it must be recalled that one of the aims of the Geneva and Reykjavik summits was precisely to try and reduce the risk of nuclear war (even accidental). Indeed, both Washington and Moscow realised they could no longer rationally keep their respective arsenals under control. And it was this realisation that prompted Reagan and Gorbachev to give up on the “negotiating minutiae” of the experts, which were leading nowhere, in favour of what is referred to in the memorandaas “big politics”. Having abandoned the propagandistic and ideological tones typical of the bipolar confrontation, the two governments had to start afreshfrom the difficult acceptance of the parity of their strategic military offensive and defensive capabilities. In practice (and leaving aside the wrangling over minutiae by the hawks and doves on each side), the USA and the USSR had, by this time, each acquired a power of destruction so great that it could no longer credibly be claimed to serve as a deterrent in the bipolar confrontation. Today, we tend to forget, even though we are going back only two decades, that the American and Soviet delegations (including their respective military leaders) striving to find a solution to this problem even entertained the idea that nuclear weapons might, within the space of a decade, be eliminated altogether.
The second aspect, namely the influence of the development of the global balance of power, instead explains why the Iceland summit ended inconclusively. Ultimately, the summit came to nothing not because one side lacked faith in the other’s possibility of reducing its existing arsenal, but rather because there prevailed an attitude of diffidence, which proved insuperable, towards the respective plans to develop strategic defensive and offensive nuclear forces. This diffidence was exacerbated by the absence of rules and of institutions above the parties that could share the exploitation of the new technologies, but mainly by the uncertainty that reigned in two areas of the world crucial for the security of both the USA and the USSR: Europe and Asia. In Europe, the real cause for concern was certainly not the nuclear arsenals of France and the United Kingdom. The Soviet and American governments knew very well that the stabilisation of Europe depended on a defusing of military tensions between Moscow and Washington, and they were quite unconcerned about the scope and quality of the single European states’ nuclear capabilities. “Can we really believe that Thatcher and Mitterrand, or whoever will succeed them, might in any conceivable circumstance press the nuclear button against us? Can our strategy towards Europe really be based on such an idea?” the Soviets asked in their internal memorandum prepared in the run-up to the Reykjavik summit. Conversely, Europe’s weakness was a real problem for the Soviet and the American governments, both of which realised that, at most, all they could hope to achieve in this continent, so exposed to international and regional crises, so dependent (both for trade and energy) on the rest of the world, and so militarily weak, would be a temporary, not a definitive, stabilisation of their power relations. In short, it proved impossible to banish from the negotiating table the possibility (or spectre) that the power vacuum in Europe might heighten tensions between the superpowers and induce them to step up the level of their confrontation there.
In Asia, on the other hand the problem was of an entirely different nature: neither the United States nor the USSR could ignore the potential for growth, and also for nuclear development, of countries like China and India. In truth, these developments were already seen as inevitable. Thus, when, in 1988, India proposed a “Baruch plan” for Third World, under whose terms the developing countries would have undertaken not to procure nuclear arms and not to carry out fresh nuclear tests providing the two major superpowers undertook to destroy their own arsenals by 2010, neither Reagan’s America nor Gorbachev’s Soviet Union — which only two years earlier had been examining the possibility of eliminating their own nuclear weapons by the end of the century — felt able to take the offer seriously. What this episode revealed, above all, was the provocative nature of the Indian proposal and also the shallowness of the pacifism professed by the two superpowers.
The rest of the story, which unfolded in the last decade of the last century, is familiar to us all. While the USA and the USSR were officially reducing their nuclear arsenals, behind the scenes they were confirming their funding of military development programmes unveiled quite openly in the course of high-level talks: in the USA’s case, the plan for a strategic defence initiative — although this actually never saw the light of day, it became the point of reference for the development of the USA’s strategic doctrine for the twenty-first century — and in the USSR’s case, the plan to increase its strategic response capacity with a new generation of missiles (the installation of which began during Putin’s presidency).
This experience shows clearly how attempts at peace-building always struggle to take root and survive outside a situation of relative international political, economic and military stability. In 1985, in Geneva, the USA and the USSR told the world that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and that, for this reason, they had decided no renounce their efforts “to seek to achieve military superiority”. Yet less than twenty years later, the Moscow Treaty of 2002 confirmed on a diplomatic level the shift in the relations of force that, on a practical one, was already a reality; in other words, the return to confrontation, regional and global, between the USA and the Russian Federation, successor of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, as America’s worried senators and congressmen were told in a report issued by the National Resources Defense Council in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers, the new treaty, unlike the previous ones, did not place any “binding restrictions on what each of the superpowers could do”. As a result, once again the quest to achieve military superiority began — officially, too — to dominate Russia-American relations. It is worth recalling briefly why and how this point was reached, a point that has been followed only by a deterioration of the situation: a growth of the reciprocal mistrust and confrontation between these two states.
The cooperation between Russia and the USA over the question of disarmament began falter when the events of the late 1980s radically altered the relations of force between them. The collapse of the USSR produced a situation characterised by a marked imbalance of power, in favour of the USA. It was at this point that the United States made the grave mistake (partly due to the absence of other poles of power in the world) of failing to appreciate, in time, that it lacked the strength, by itself, to guarantee international stability and instead sought, at the expense of others, to consolidate and increase its military superiority.
In the space of just a few years, it became clear that Russia’s military inferiority was a contingent situation, whereas America’s superiority, on the other hand, was quickly undermined by the rapid succession of military crises in different parts of the world, by the rise of the Asian powers, and by international monetary and financial crises. But the abrupt end of unipolarism — this is the expression used in politics to refer in less crude terms to the end of the USA’s hegemonic ambitions — has not, however, ushered in a new, more advanced multipolar equilibrium, even though new poles of power have emerged and become established on the world stage. On the contrary, in the current era of globalisation, the practically infinite scope for the intertwining of production, commercial and social processes at international level, together with the level of global interdependence, is actually increasing the causes of confrontations and tensions between the national governments. As a result, today we are, in many ways, living in a situation that, to borrow a term used by Lord Lothian when analysing the international situation between the two World Wars, might be defined as one of international anarchy, even though a few are now, tentatively and euphemistically starting to talk of apolar disorder, another ambiguous neologism.
However, the risks of a deterioration and disintegration of the international system have become too obvious to be ignored. It is these risks that prompted former American secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz (one of the leading figures at the Geneva and Reykjavic summits) and scientists like Richard Garwin, who helped to design America’s first hydrogen bomb, to appeal repeatedly in the international press and on the Internet for the world to be freed from the nuclear threat. And it is these looming risks that have also convinced others, such as Richard Haass, president of the Council for Foreign Relations, to suggest promoting within “a core group of governments” a rapid transition to a cooperative form of multipolarism capable of averting the dangers inherent in apolar disorder.
Despite constituting only a very small first step in the right direction, this proposal, should it be taken up, could certainly influence positively the evolution of the international climate. But who should take the initiative in promoting this transition towards an order based on cooperation, and how? On the one hand, the USA, despite its progressive weakness and Russia, undeniably a less powerful influence than in the past, are the only two states to have reached, and retained, the status of nuclear superpower, both regionally (in America, Asia and Europe) and at world level; they are also the two states that share the historical and political responsibility for embarking on the strategy of nuclear deterrence, in all its possible forms — from the concept of mutual assured destruction to those of the flexible response and the limited war — and also for attempting all forms of détente, from the balancing of powers to the first embryonic forms of reciprocal security. On the other hand, the confrontation between the USA and Russia in Asia and in Europe shows a disturbing continuity with the second half of the last century. Whereas in Asia the USA and Russia have always been forced to act as leading powers, on an equal footing with China and India, in Europe, they continue to play a predominant role, given that neither the major European states (including Europe’s two nuclear powers, Great Britain and France) nor the European Union have the will, strength, means or credibility to look after their own security. In these circumstances, for the USA and Russia, failure to exert an influence over part of Europe would mean running an unacceptable strategic risk, just as it did twenty years ago.
It was precisely to avoid this risk that, after the end of the Second World War, the USA and the USSR began to build and add to the vast nuclear arsenals that, still today, are the basis of their confrontation. It is worth recalling that these arsenals, despite having been reduced, together still account for nearly all of the nuclear weapons present in the world and, considered separately, are still far superior to those of all the Asian and European nuclear powers put together. Were the Americans not fearful, on account of the divided Europeans’ intrinsic and chronic weakness, of seeing Europe fall under Russia’s influence, they would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons within reach of the Russian Federation. Russia, on the other hand, if it did not have the worry of the physical presence of the American nuclear superpower on its doorstep, would have everything to gain from reducing its arsenals and cooperating more closely with the Europeans. Indeed, a European pole of power, even equipped with only a minimal nuclear deterrence, would have sufficient powers of dissuasion but would not constitute, for Russia, an offensive threat even remotely comparable to the one currently posed by the Americans.
In the light of these considerations, it is possible to see the causal link between the need to create a new European framework, the possibility of bringing about lasting and effective Russian-American reconciliation, and the start of a new era of nuclear disarmament. There is a clear and single reason why, in the 1980s, the European Community failed to do anything to favour the attempt at reconciliation led by Reagan and Gorbachev; why, in the 1990s, the European Union proved unable to prevent the creeping return to the confrontation between the USA and Russia; and why, since the start of this new century, the Europeans have looked on passively as the confrontation between the USA and Russia has once again started to be played out on their own territory. And the reason is this: Europe’s institutional framework has shown itself to be incapable of evolving through an infinite series of small steps into a state entity of continental dimensions capable of dealing, on an equal footing, with the world’s other poles of power. What is needed, in order for a European actor to be able to enter the global stage, is a federal leap forward, a break with the Union that, in spite of the successes it has recorded, continues to be paralysed by the power of the member states to decide in the last instance on the most crucial questions. In other words, it is necessary, at long last, to create a European federal state equipped with the will and with the minimum means necessary to affirm its independence from Russia and the USA.
The fact that many are still hostile to this idea reflects the difficult historical period the Europeans are currently living through. On the one hand, the majority refuse to accept the obvious need to overcome the current framework in order to create a new one, preferring to keep the existing national sovereignties rather than create a European federal state. They refuse to accept that this step, difficult as it is, is now the only realistic and feasible way of restarting the European project and, through it, of bringing about the transition to a more cooperative, and thus more innovative and peaceful, form of international multipolarism. Others, on the other hand, accept the need for a European pole of power to exert a stabilising influence on the global equilibria but, fearing that the birth of a new state of continental dimensions might further exacerbate international competition, they fail to accept the need to go as far as the foundation of a European state.
Clearly, the creation of a European federal state would not eliminate, overnight, the risk of war tout court or even the risk of a nuclear war, but simply freeing the USA and Russia from the obligation to confront each other in Europe would constitute an enormous step forwards on the road towards world peace. But there is more. The European federal state’s acquisition of a minimum nuclear deterrence would be an entirely new development. Indeed, European nuclear sovereignty might reasonably become a reality if, and only if, two conditions are met, in this order: a) France must manifest its willingness to transfer control of its nuclear deterrent to a supranational level, and b) there must be an undertaking from Germany, in the first instance, to share with France the responsibility for governing European nuclear policy in the ambit of the initial core of a European federation. From this perspective, it is clear that a European pole of power will not be created under the banner of a new project for power or a new arms race, but rather under that of the first ever — and thus revolutionary — example of voluntary and peaceful transfer of nuclear sovereignty by a nation-state to a superior level of government.
There is only one avenue that can now be pursued if we want to prevent a further degeneration of the current climate of international anarchy and, by so doing, tackle the new dimension of the nuclear threat. It has become necessary to try, starting in Europe, to impress a new and peaceful direction on the evolution of international relations, and in particular on relations between the USA and Russia. It is a difficult task, but not an impossible one and for the Europeans it will probably turn out to be the last chance history will give them to try, through the force of their example, to persuade the other global powers back on to the road to peace.